The horrible war now taking place in Ukraine raises many questions but chief among them is why this war, and why now. Several pundits are providing various reasons or trying to explain Putin's thoughts. But those provided by the Russian President are false justifications. We explain why in this podcast.
False Justifications for War: Russian and Ukrainian History - Part I
Three quotes from Frederick the Great
This podcast is the first of three involving Russian and Ukrainian history. The first will discuss justifications for war, second imperial Russia, and the third the Soviet period.
Frederick the Great, the mid-18th century King of Prussia is a unique historical figure.
He was one of the great generals of history but also believed in the enlightenment hosting Voltaire at his table. In addition to the real politic statements above, he also said, “The greatest and noblest pleasure we have in this world is to discover new truths, and the next is to shake off old prejudices.”
He forged the modern Prussian state, the precursor to the Germany of two world wars fame. At one point, he faced a coalition of France, Austria, Sweden, and Russia when each nation was more powerful than Prussia. The timely death of one of his adversaries, Elizabeth, the Tsarina of Russia, enabled him to eventually emerge victorious in the Seven Year's War. It helped that Elizabeth’s heir, a feckless Peter III, held Frederick in the highest of esteem. Alas, this was not enough for Peter to keep his throne as his German-born wife, Catherine, ousted him from power. We shall see more of Catherine in the next podcast but suffice it to say that in the past two years, not one but two streaming services have featured shows about her. The first on HBO was a real look featuring Catherine at the height of her power. The second one is a comedy that chooses saucier bits of history and throws them together without any real pretense to accuracy.
Frederick was different for yet another reason. When he conquered the rich province of Silesia, wresting it from the Austrians, his justifications were paper thin. I will repeat the quote from above because it is germane to what we see in the news, circa February 2022, “I begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right.”
Regarding the taking of Silesia in 1740, Frederick’s timing was not coincidental (these takings rarely are). The Habsburg Austrians, also Holy Roman Emperors, were trying to accomplish something generally frowned upon in almost every nation, particularly in the 18th-century central European century. That would be to install a woman, Maria Theresa, as Empress. Frederick, or his scholars, came up with semi-justifications. Brandenburg–Prussia's claims in Silesia were based, in part, on a 1537 inheritance treaty between the Silesian Piast Duke Frederick II of Legnica and the Hohenzollern Prince-Elector Joachim II Hector of Brandenburg where the Silesian duchies were to pass to the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg should the Piast dynasty in Silesia become extinct.
Are you following all of this? The real justification was that Frederick, like Alexander of Macedon, had inherited a very well-trained, well-equipped army from his father. And like the Macedonian, he was not afraid to use it. Frederick saw in Austria's female succession an opportune moment for the seizure of Silesia, calling it "the signal for the complete transformation of the old political system.” And finally, Silesia was rich.
The Roman Empire was one of the largest, longest-lasting states, but the Romans had a strange conceit. They believed that the majority of their empire had come by way of defense, or so that was how they justified their happening upon empire. They did not conquer Italy but had to protect themselves from tribes in Campania, Greek cities in the South, and Celts in the North. They did not conquer Spain, Northern Africa, or Southern France. Instead, they had to crush Carthage, the owners of these provinces, before Carthage conquered them. In Macedonia, Phillip V started it and the same of Seleucids in Asia. And of course, if Cleopatra the VII had behaved and not meddled in Roman affairs or with Roman Generals, Octavian would not have added that nation into the Roman fold.
That is why Caesar’s Gallic conquests were so problematic. When he began the conquest of Gaul, there was no direct threat to Rome aside from the migration of Helvetii. Caesar used this migration and general fear of the Germans as his casus belli. That is one of those Latin terms I love so well, casus belli or argument for war. Caesar cemented his actions by issuing his famous Gallic commentaries and, of course, by winning. The Commentaries are fascinating to me. It is as if all American news reports from Europe in World War II were not from news agencies but rather directly from Dwight Eisenhower’s pen. Imagine how setbacks such as the hedgerow fighting in Normandy or the surprise German offensive known to us as the battle of the bulge would have been spun.
All through history, we see these justifications. Edward I of England had to wear on the Scots because they kept raiding Northumbria. His grandson, Edward III, had to war on France because his other grandfather (through his mother) was King of France, so he had a legitimate claim. And the entire British monarchy was based on William of Normandy's spurious claim to the English crown. The United States had to conquer Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California because Mexican President and Strongman Antonio López de Santa Anna were a threat. Forget that the concept of manifest destiny was a thing.
And this brings us to Vladimir Putin’s justifications for his war on Ukraine. And let us be clear to all of those who thought this a surprise, “he actually did it!” Seriously? Let’s begin with another war that involved Putin, the Chechen war of the early 2000s. In September of 1999, a series of explosions, blamed on Chechen separatists, hit four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk, killing more than 300, injuring more than 1000, and spreading a wave of fear across the country. The bombings, together with the Invasion of Dagestan, triggered the Second Chechen War. Then-prime minister (not President) Vladimir Putin's handling of the crisis boosted his popularity significantly and helped him attain the presidency within a few months.
Twenty years later, there is no clear answer to who planned the terrorist attacks. Even the official version offers no proof that the Chechen leaders were behind it. Was Putin directly linked to these bombings? The answer is unknown, but Putin hugely benefitted from this national crisis. As journalist David Satter, who has reported on this incident extensively, notes, “There was an enormous amount of material in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that pointed to the possibility and the likelihood that the authorities themselves blew up those buildings. At the same time, a fifth bomb was discovered in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan, a city southeast of Moscow. And I went to Ryazan after the bomb was found and diffused to talk to residents, and it was clear from those conversations that what took place was a genuine attempt to blow up the fifth building. The authorities said that this was only a training exercise, but it was nothing of the kind.
And what was most important was that three persons were arrested for putting a bomb in a building in Ryazan. They turned out to be not Chechens, not terrorists in the usual sense, but rather agents of the Federal Securities Service, which is the FSB.” And who was in charge of the FSB, the former KGB at that time? Vladimir Putin.
So that was one war.
Here is another. In the 10th century AD, Georgia, located in the Caucuses region between the Black and Caspian Seas, for the first time emerged as an ethnic concept in the territories where the Georgian language was used to perform Christian rituals. After the Mongol invasions of the region (we shall see here more about those in the next podcast), the Kingdom of Georgia eventually was split into several states. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire gradually took over the Georgian lands. After the Russian revolution, Georgia declared independence on 26 May 1918. But in 1921, the independent Democratic Republic of Georgia was invaded by the Red Army in 1921, and a Soviet government was installed. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia again declared independence. Inside the borders of traditional Georgia lay a province called South Ossetia, whose inhabitants, a tiny minority population, wish independence from Georgia. It was for the ostensible protection of the South Ossetians.
In 2008, Russia accused Georgia of "aggression against South Ossetia" and launched a full-scale land, air, and sea invasion of Georgia on 8 August, which Russia called a "peace enforcement" operation. Russian and South Ossetian forces fought Georgian forces in and around South Ossetia for several days until Georgian forces retreated. Russian and Abkhaz forces opened a second front by attacking the Kodori Gorge held by Georgia. Russian naval forces blockaded part of the Georgian coast. The Russian air force attacked targets beyond the conflict zone in undisputed territories of Georgia. This was the first war in history in which cyber warfare coincided with military action. An information war was also waged during and after the conflict. Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, negotiated a ceasefire agreement on 12 August.
Russian forces temporarily occupied three Georgian cities, holding on to these areas beyond the ceasefire. In addition, the South Ossetians destroyed most ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia and were responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Georgians.
And it is here we come to one of the great falsities of understanding what is happening to Ukraine today, the specter of NATO. In the 2000s, Georgia aspired to be a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization designed initially to counter Soviet predations in Europe. Many, too many, people ranging from the late George Kennan to the sometimes insightful and profound Peggy Noonan to the increasingly unserious Tucker Carlson have praised Putin’s concerns about NATO as the reason he is invading his neighbors. The corollary to this argument is that if NATO had not expanded, not added Poland or the Czech Republic or Lithuania to NATO, Putin would not be the belligerent creature we see before us now?
There is a phrase initially attributed to Roman Emperor Tiberius, and that is to be Emperor is to hold the wolf by the ears. Hold the ears, and one controls the wolf, but let's go and get destroyed. In Putin’s reign, when he began to jail or even kill his opponents, he used state entities such as Gazprom, the national oil company, to further his political interests and war on his neighbors; there was no going back. Men Like Vladimir Putin cannot retire as our presidents, or even previous Russian leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin were able to. If Putin ever lays down power, he will be set upon by many opponents, not the least of which disaffected mobs of Russians. So what is a dictator to do? Essentially the same thing western politicians do. Find a straw man, a common enemy, the other to justify the hold on power and the deterioration of livelihood. In Putin’s case, he has found NATO. Though it had been considered, there was no current plan to include Ukraine in the alliance, but that does not matter. And to use NATO in this fashion is backward. This is the logic of the left that says that since Americans enjoy relative peace, we do not need a significant military presence. But the reason we have peace is that we have a significant military presence. NATO is not the reason that Putin invades his neighbors. Instead, it is the reason that he has chosen to take on non-NATO members such as Georgia and Ukraine, but not easier prey such as Lithuania. It is disheartening in the extreme to see ostensibly intelligent and informed writers such as Noonan, Carlson, and writers in the Federalist aping Putin’s propaganda.
And as for Donald Trump’s descriptor of Putin as a genius? Forget the inanity of his publicly providing praise and admiration for such a figure. Instead, Trump’s ability to voice his thought brings to mind Mike Tyson’s purchase of a jaguar and three Bengal tigers.
Just because you can, does not mean you should. Per the genius comment, that is the kind of ignorance I would attach to progressives. It is not genius to line up forces and launch them at much smaller, peaceful nations.
Instead, that is the regular part of the thing. Frederick was not a genius for invading Silesia, nor was a good man for it. However, he was a genius, a military one, for fighting off four nations, each of which was able to field larger armies than his own in the Seven Years War.
This is not THE invasion of Ukraine, but rather a continuation of the war in Ukraine as Russia already seized Crimea in 2014. We have discussed Putin’s use of NATO to justify his ends. Putin has also made it plain that he does not consider Ukraine a real country. In July, an extended essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” appeared under his name. Much of the language and scholastic discourse echo, in cartoonish form, the writings of nineteenth-century Russian nationalists such as Mikhail Katkov.
Isaac Chotiner, writing for the New Yorker, states, “Vladimir Putin has made clear that he believes Ukraine has no historical claim to independent statehood; on Monday, he said that modern Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia.” Putin’s statements bristle with frustration with American and European leaders for what he perceives as bringing Ukraine into the Western orbit after the end of the Cold War. But at the heart of his anger is a rejection of the political project embodied in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For years, Putin has questioned the legitimacy of former Soviet republics, claiming that Lenin planted a “time bomb” by allowing them self-determination in the early years of the U.S.S.R. Yet, in his speeches, he appears to be attempting to turn back the clock, not to the heyday of Soviet Communism but to the time of an imperial Russia.” Does this sound like a person who believes that he would leave his neighbors alone if NATO did not exist?
So let’s ask the question, is Ukraine an independent entity? Chotiner adds, “I recently spoke by phone with Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Harvard and the author of “The Gates of Europe,” an account of the emergence of Ukrainian identity. (His forthcoming book is “Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters.”) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the long-standing sources of Russian fears about the Ukrainian language and identity, how Ukrainians might respond to further Russian incursions, and Putin’s speech tells us about the complex relationship between the two nations.
How far back do you trace a type of Ukrainian identity that we would recognize today?
It depends on what element of that identity you are speaking of. If you are talking about language, that would be pretty much primordial. That would be more than a thousand years old in terms of identity with religious components. But the first modern Ukrainian political project started in the mid-nineteenth century, as with many other groups.
Ukraine's problem was that it was divided between two powers: the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. And, very early, the Russian Empire recognized the threat posed by a separate and particularly literary Ukrainian language to the unity of the empire. So, starting in the eighteen-sixties, more than forty years of prohibition on the publication of Ukrainian basically arrested the development of the literary language. That, along with the position between the two powers, was a contributing factor to the fact that, in the middle of World War One and the 1917 revolution, with other nationalities trying and in some cases gaining independence, Ukrainians tried to do that but were ultimately defeated.” We shall look into that defeat in a future podcast in which we will examine the Soviet response to Ukraine.
There are three cities especially prominent in Russian history. Moscow, the center of the Tsarist and Communist regimes. St. Petersburg, the city founded by the most famous of the Tsars, Peter the Great, the capital of the Empire during World War I, and the site of a famous World War II battle though the city was then in its Leningrad iteration. But before those cities were Kiev or Kyiv as it is known today. THE ORGANIZING center of Kyivan Rus, the first great Slavic state, Kyiv arose in the ninth century as a commercial hub on the trade routes connecting Europe, the Eastern Christian Empire known as Byzantium with its capital at Constantinople, the Abbasid Moslem empire ruled from Baghdad and the Khazar state of the lower Volga and the northern Caucasus. Supposedly, the name itself comes from Kyi's founding brother, but this could be as problematic as Rome having been founded by a twin named Romulus. At its zenith in the eleventh century, Kyiv was the ruling center of one of the largest political entities in medieval Europe and one of the world's most splendid cities. Its population for the year has been estimated at fifty thousand or more. By comparison, Paris had about fifty thousand inhabitants, while London had an estimated population of thirty thousand. The rulers of this entity were known as Grand Princes; Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr in Ukrainian), who ruled Kyivan Rus from 980 CE, was more intent on addressing the needs of his subjects and establishing a cohesive state.
Having married into the royal family of the Christian Byzantine Empire, Vladimir converted to Christianity and converted his subjects, baptizing en masse a large number of Kyiv's inhabitants. Unfortunately, the richness and fame of Kyiv attracted many plunderers, and it sustained numerous attacks and ruin by the Pechenegs and the Cumans. With the partition of Rus’ among the various princes, Kyiv was assigned to the eldest son of the grand prince. Incessant internecine battles for the throne of Kyiv ensued. The city's sack by Prince Andrei of Suzdal in 1169 and by Prince Rurik and his allies (the princes from) in 1203 were particularly destructive.
As a result of the unceasing wars and plunderings, Kyiv’s importance dwindled, and in December 1240, it was sacked by the Mongol-Tatar army of Batu Khan, which decimated its population.
In our next podcast, we will explore the Polish Lithuanian conquests, the Cossacks' arrival, and Tsarist Russia's incursion upon Kyiv. But suffice it to say that despite Kyiv’s relationships to Russia in recent years, its medieval history was far more tied to the likes of the Byzantines and Arabs to the South, the Mongols from the East, and the Poles and Lithuanians to the West and North. And this history also shows that a once great and proud city was brought to near ruins by avaricious powers in the past.
However, what has changed was that the Mongols nor the Poles possessed nuclear weapons. Therefore, it is not just Putin’s aggressions that make him stand out on the world stage today, but that he possesses nuclear weapons, which will give the world pause in confronting his barbarities. Was it Xan Smiley who first described the Soviets as “Upper Volta with missiles” in the 1960s, as a joke at the disproportional spending on the military while leaving the civilian economy undeveloped? It does not matter if Russia has a smaller GDP than France, Italy, or California.
It does matter that we now have a nuclear power waging war on a large scale. And the reason Putin does so is that, as Frederick, he will take what he wants, regardless of those opinions around him. But unlike Frederick, he does not feel he has a choice. Not because of NATO or history, but because he needs a distraction from his misgovernment and corruption. He is leading Russia to ruin, and as long as he remains in power, it does not matter. That is the true justification for what he does.